Belfast Telegraph

Trump's presidency poses many, many challenges, but drawing comparisons with Hitler is odious

By Dan O'Brien

In many quarters, Irish premier Eamon de Valera's signing of the book of condolences at the German embassy after the suicide of Adolf Hitler in 1945 was not well-received. As the months and years passed and the full horrors of Nazism became apparent, it became an ever-larger blot on his record.

For many decades now - and for very good reason - Hitler and his regime have been seen as the epitome of evil. When one wants to use an example of a regime that is utterly without a redeeming feature in debate or discussion, Nazism is easily reached for.

Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance, those who advocated the ousting of Saddam Hussein often likened those who opposed the invasion to Hitler's appeasers in the 1930s. Although there was some basis for the parallel, it was mostly wrong.

The same can be said of the increasingly common parallels being made between Hitler's regime and the Donald Trump administration.

Although history can always provide context and sometimes sounds warnings, its lessons can also be mislearnt. Badly learnt lessons often result in bad analysis. Bad analysis usually leads to bad decisions - something other countries need to consider when weighing up how to respond to the very considerable threats and challenges Trump poses.

To see why the Nazi parallel is ill-judged, consider what Trump would have to do in the short-term to match Hitler.

Among the first things he would have to do is to convince Congress to enact laws allowing for the closing down of media organisations he claims propagate 'fake news', such as the New York Times and CNN.

He would have to use parts of the police and security apparatus to imprison, torture and 'disappear' political opponents.

He would have to fire, or intimidate, not one, but thousands of federal and State-level judges, so that the US's independent judiciary cannot check illegal and/or unconstitutional executive orders and legislation. He would even have to cancel next year's congressional elections.

These are exactly the sorts of measures Hitler implemented within a short period of coming to power.

But, because the US today is not Germany of the 1930s in many profound and important ways, such outcomes are unlikely. Perhaps the most important difference is the strength and durability of democracy in America.

The historian Noah Strote wrote this week: "Like Mr Trump, Hitler took control of a democratic system in crisis". To compare the crisis in US democracy - and it is easy to make the case that 'crisis' is too strong a term for the problems of the US system - with the much more profound crisis Germany faced in the midst of the Great Depression is a curious thing for a historian to do.

In less than a decade, the US will mark the 250th anniversary of its independence and the establishment of its constitutional order.

America has had its ups and downs over a quarter of millennium, but the system of checks and balances put in place by its founding fathers has prevented the emergence of a dictatorship over the centuries.

If there is a crisis in America's democratic system in recent times, it is because of the interplay between the many checks and balances, on the one hand, and the polarisation of politics in recent decades on the other, which has made the system of government considerably less effective than it once was.

When one considers the long history of independent institutions in the US with Germany's very shallow democratic roots in the 1930s, the parallel becomes even more curious. Then, Germany had only become a democracy for the first time with the establishment of the Weimar Republic in the wake of catastrophic defeat in the First World War.

The early years of that republic were marked by economic collapse and hyper-inflation, a trauma which came on top of two million wartime deaths.

There were a few brief years of stability in the late 1920s, but then the Great Depression in 1929 plunged the German economy back into mass unemployment and poverty. By the time Hitler came to power, the unemployment rate was at 30%.

Today, many Americans face economic difficulties, but with an unemployment rate at below 5% and levels of prosperity unimaginable in Depression-era Germany, the sort of mass desperation and destitution that would make Americans prepared to give up long-held rights, such as the right to vote and to litigate, seems fanciful.

The widespread demonstrations that have been held in the weeks since Trump was sworn in do not suggest a people broken and cowed as the German people were in the Depression.

How the American people respond to Trump is one thing. How countries like ours respond is another matter. For long-time allies of the US to start acting towards it as if it were Nazi Germany would push the world in a more dangerous direction than it is already going, playing into the hands of those around Trump who seek escalation, conflict and permanent crisis.

The time to act against the Trump administration will be if it takes measures which go against our interests and other friendly countries' interests and if he continues down the path of actions which do not chime with democratic values.

Trump poses very real threats and challenges to his own country and the rest of the world. But, at this juncture, drawing parallels with Hitler are, at best, a distraction and, at worst, counter-productive.

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